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This is what climate change looks like (II)

flooding in Namibia

(Flooding in Namibia. Photo credit: potjie)

The Australian government recently issued their 2009 report on climate change, subtitled “Faster Change and More Serious Risks.” Australia is the developed country being hit hardest by climate change – currently in the form of prolonged drought – so they have a special interested in the topic. It’s a grim report.

You might have guessed from the subtitle - the major point of the report is that change is happening faster than predicted. While many uncertainties in the science remain, they all point to faster change. There is no hope that climate change will slow down, or even conform to previous models. We are also on the verge of irreversible long-term feedback loops, after which there will be nothing we can do to stop the changes. None of that is new, but they’ve got an impressive array of data backing up their conclusions. New to me was a genuinely terrifying graph demonstrating we can go back a thousand years and still never see average temperatures like what we’re seeing now.

As though to confirm the conclusions of the Australian report, we have three major flooding situations currently going on. In Benin, 20,000 people have been displaced by heavy flooding along the Southern coastline. Namibia’s cereal harvest is down by 60% because of flooding, and half a million people fled their homes in Assam, India, because of early onset of monsoon season. In every case, observers are reporting that the floods are earlier in the season and more severe than ever before.

Welcome to the future.

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What climate change looks like–Dengue Fever

Dengue fever is painful, unpleasant, and contagious. It used to be limited in its geographic area – a tropical disease. That is changing. We’ve seen a steady spread of dengue’s territory over the last 30 years, and dengue prevalence has increased by three thousand percent over the last fifty years.

The National Resources Defense Council just released a report on dengue fever’s spread in the United States. They found that “mosquitoes capable of transmitting dengue have spread into at least 28 US states, including Texas, Florida, Arizona, and even states as far north as New York and New Hampshire.” That’s right – a tropical disease in New Hampshire. Now might be a good time to buy stock in mosquito repellant and screen doors.

In case you were wondering: dengue is also known as breakbone fever, and it’s an infection spread by mosquitoes. (Not the same kind of mosquito that spreads malaria, because that would be too easy). Its death rate is not that high, but it spreads quickly. It is a very, very painful illness – thus the name “breakbone”. And some unlucky cases develop a complication called Dengue hemorrhagic fever, which has a death rate of 2.5%-10% and is just as unpleasant as it sounds.

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This Is What Climate Change Looks Like

flooding in Namibia

(Flooding in Namibia. Photo credit: potjie)

The Australian government recently issued their 2009 report on climate change, subtitled “Faster Change and More Serious Risks.” Australia is the developed country being hit hardest by climate change – currently in the form of prolonged drought – so they have a special interested in the topic. It’s a grim report.

You might have guessed from the subtitle - the major point of the report is that change is happening faster than predicted. While many uncertainties in the science remain, they all point to faster change. There is no hope that climate change will slow down, or even conform to previous models. We are also on the verge of irreversible long-term feedback loops, after which there will be nothing we can do to stop the changes. None of that is new, but they’ve got an impressive array of data backing up their conclusions. New to me was a genuinely terrifying graph demonstrating we can go back a thousand years and still never see average temperatures like what we’re seeing now.

As though to confirm the conclusions of the Australian report, we have three major flooding situations currently going on. In Benin, 20,000 people have been displaced by heavy flooding along the Southern coastline. Namibia’s cereal harvest is down by 60% because of flooding, and half a million people fled their homes in Assam, India, because of early onset of monsoon season. In every case, observers are reporting that the floods are earlier in the season and more severe than ever before.

Welcome to the future.

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Obama at major emitters meeting

POTUS' statement at L'Aquila:

He said the U.S. - with its "much larger carbon footprint per capita" - now means to lead by example.

"The United States has sometimes fallen short of meeting our responsibilities," Obama said. "Let me be clear, those days are over."

And he prodded others to follow.

The question is, which comes first, the prodding or the emissions reductions?

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Two cannot be the only number to fight climate change

The world's largest carbon emitters, meeting at the tail end of the, er, rather tumultuous G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, look like they're going to take an unfortunate step backward (or at best sideways) in the rapidly dwindling months before global climate negotiations in Copenhagen begin in December. The promises of these countries have gone from, a year ago, a pledge to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 -- albeit passing over the very relevant detail of specifying 50% of levels from which year, 1990 or 2005 -- to an agreement to drop all numbers whatsoever from this year's text.

Instead of set targets, the 17-nations in the forum, which is chaired by U.S. President Barack Obama, will acknowledge the "broad scientific view" that global warming must not be allowed to exceed two degrees centigrade, these officials said.

Ignore the scare quotes -- they are de rigueur for the Wall Street Journal. If global temperatures increase two degrees centigrade, we are beyond serious trouble. The point of these summits is to figure out how to ensure that from happening, and dodging the tough question of what targets to set does not help solve that problem in the least.

The blame here, of course, is diffuse. Developing countries like India and China don't want to commit to stringent reductions just when their economies are booming, and poor countries are worried they won't be able to afford the new technologies that such adaptation will necessitate. I'm going to have to pin good deal of blame on countries like the United States and Japan, though, which have more or less conceded that they are not going to be able to even try to hit the more ambitious targets. Candor is appreciated, but I fail to see how lowering the numbers -- let alone leaving them out entirely -- will spur developed economies to bring about the admittedly costly changes of ensuring that the planet doesn't boil over.

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Does stopping climate change only require two countries?

Recognizing that the issues on which the United States and Russia are extremely unlikely agree to are limited to a relatively small sub-sphere is, unfortunately and erroneously, not enough for some commentators.  Dave Schuler, at Outside the Beltway, for example, finds nothing on which the former Cold War foes can build a relationship.  Yet how Schuler can argue in one paragraph that "[t]here is no more important bilateral relationship between nations than that between Russia and the United States" and in the next that "[w]e don’t really need Russia’s cooperation on pressing world issues like climate change" is utterly baffling to me.  His point is that, as much as the two countries need a good relationship, "there isn't much basis" for one.  On the contrary -- I'd argue quite easily that the very need for this good relationship -- evidenced by, say, their ability, cited by Schuler, "to destroy the world" -- is more than basis enough.

Dan Drezner respectfully disagrees with the logic Schuler uses to connect Russia's strategic position with its U.S. relationship.  The flaws in the logic that he uses to dismiss the mutual needs and interests of this relationship, I'd add, are encapsulated by that flabbergasting statement: "We don’t really need Russia’s cooperation on pressing world issues like climate change."  As a country, Russia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.  China, the United States, then Russia.  How, pray tell, could any global emissions reductions system have any success whatsoever without inducing Russia to stopper its smokestacks?

(This is precluding, of course, the admittedly rather faint possibility of one particularly environmentally interested country, or billionaire, saying "screw it" and sucking all of the carbon out of the atmosphere themselves.)

(image from flickr user otodo under a Creative Commons license)

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How swine flu and the economy can help tackle climate change, MDGs, and food shortages

If the G8 can figure out what to do about Italy, they might want to heed some of the Secretary-General's advice. In another op-ed that just might increase a few crushes (or maybe just boost his global popularity), Ban presents the responses to the global financial crisis last fall and the H1N1 epidemic this spring as evidence of the interconnectedness of global problems -- and how vigorous global cooperation can have a resounding impact. Armed with these examples, he lays down the gauntlet for the G8 on three of the causes he has taken up: global warming, the Millennium Development Goals, and the world food crisis. On the first, he sets an ambitious goal:

First, the G8 and other major emitters of greenhouse gases must intensify their work to seal a deal at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. That agreement must be scientifically rigorous, equitable, ambitious and exact. Achieving the goal of limiting the global mean temperature increase to two degrees Celsius will require nations to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2050. The G8 and other industrialised countries must take the lead by committing to emission cuts of at least 80% from 1990 levels.

It's worth pointing out that this is the minimum that will be necessary to prevent the worst from happening. Yet it's also, thus far, more than the United States and other wealthy countries are ready to commit to. As Ban writes, "co-operation works, but we've only just gotten started."

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Tim Wirth: Where’s the Natural Gas?

UN Foundation President Senator Tim Wirth laments that there is little in the recently-passed Waxman-Markey climate change legislation to encourage the natural gas industry.   In the video below, Wirth explains how natural gas can be a bridge between carbon intense energy, like coal, and renewables.